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The cultural reproduction of Iranian elites: a case study of an elite school

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Elites are influential and their cooperation is seen as a key contributor in the success of social development and modernisation processes in both classic and modern works (e.g. Pareto 1935; Mosca 1960; Burton and Higley 1998; Presthus 1973; Weingast 1997). Elites' positions of power means that their understandings and behavioural patterns are important to the society (Savage and Williams, 2008). This justifies the study of how those patterns are acquired, in which elite schools are counted as a primary factor (Bourdieu, 1998). We currently do not know much about elite socialization and the (re)production of cultural capital in social contexts other than modern capitalist societies. Underlying this empirical gap is a key theoretical one concerning the dynamics of status, capital and elite reproduction in status-based societies, where the importance of holding cultural and social capital can potentially be a defining factor in being ‘elite’, and acquiring them using economic capital can be more difficult. To help address this gap, this research is carried out in a status-based society with a theocratic state.

I carried out an ethnographic case-study to analyse the socialisation of a branch of Iranian religious elites in one of their elite schools, complementing to the ethnographic data by additional semi-structured interviews with school graduates, teachers and managers. I show that in line with its ideals and through mediums ranging from class discussions and activities to distinctive school rules, extracurricular activities and the organisation of space, the school cultivates two distinct types of habitus in its students; an elite and a religious modesty habitus. The former is centred around cultural capital inculcations such as the knowledge of and fluency in classical literature, a taste for power positions relative to peers, embodying comfort in them and learning the importance of relationships with superiors to survive in strict environments. Also, religious modesty is cultivated through intensive inculcations of religious capital which give students a deep knowledge of religious linguistics, texts, rituals and the embodiment of ‘modesty’, which incline students toward having an outlook of simplicity without exhibitions of economic privilege or luxuriousness, and develop narratives and senses of ‘hardship endurance’. Modesty is an instance of cultural eclecticism which can help individuals to ‘perform ordinariness’ by downplaying and justifying their religious privilege while signalling high religiosity at the same time. The data shows instances where the school synthesises the elite and religious modesty cultivations and others where it manages their partial contradictions. Nonetheless, I also explore some unintended consequences which seep out from the intensive cultivation machine, some of which threaten the basic tenets of the school’s educational ideals.

The thesis presents its findings by dividing them into chapters on the school's history (background chapter), educational aims and reputation (background chapter), the admissions process, followed by the cultivation of the elite habitus, then the religious modesty habitus, the synthesis and contradictions between the two followed by the unintended consequences of the cultivation.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date1 Sep 2020

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